An off-duty police officer was in a playground with his family when he saw two men fighting, according to police accounts, which have been challenged by eye-witnesses. When the officer identified himself, police said the men threw stones at him. Fearing for his life, the officer pulled the trigger, police said. The bullet hit a 19-year-old black man, who later died in hospital.
Anger in the teenager’s community erupted after the shooting. In the following two days, protesters torched cars, damaged ambulances and burned tires as the violence spread across the country.
As the investigation began into the circumstances of the shooting, the officer was taken into custody and subsequently released and placed under house arrest. But it was too late to prevent the rioting in which dozens were injured on both sides, and 136 protesters were taken into custody, according to police.
It’s the type of violence sparked by perceived racial injustice that we’ve often seen in cities in the United States.
But this happened in Israel, and the black man who died, Solomon Teka, was Jewish.
Waves of migration
For years, Ethiopian-Israelis have complained of being treated like second-class citizens – black Jews in a white country – unfairly targeted by police and facing systemic discrimination. The death of Teka, who moved to Israel from Ethiopia with his family when he was 12, has brought these perceived injustices boiling to the surface.
Most of Israel’s Ethiopian community arrived in two larges waves of migration in the 1980s and 1990s, following Israel’s recognition of Ethiopia’s Jewish community in 1975. For generations, their ancestors had lived in the east African country, but as the political situation deteriorated in the region, Israeli leaders felt a need to bring the Jewish community out.
First in 1984, as part of Operation Moses, then again in 1991 as Operation Solomon, Ethiopian Jews were flown to Israel in large numbers. In one 36-hour period in May 1991, more than 14,000 Ethiopians were brought to Israel on board military and civilian aircraft.
Today, Israel’s Ethiopian community numbers approximately 140,000, according to the Population and Census Bureau, which is about 1.5% of the population.
But the Ethiopian-Israeli community lags behind the general population in nearly every socioeconomic category, according to the Ethiopian National Project, an advocacy organization working to advance integration of Ethiopians into Israeli society. The Ethiopian community has a higher poverty rate, lower employment rate, and lower average income than the general population of Israel.
But the tension goes beyond economics. Up until the mid-90s, Israeli blood banks threw out blood donated by Ethiopians because of a fear of AIDS contamination. In 2014, Ethiopian-Israeli Avera Mengistu crossed into Gaza, where it’s widely believed he has been held prisoner ever since. Though government officials routinely talk of two Israeli soldiers whose remains are still in Gaza following the 2014 war, Mengistu’s name comes up far less frequently in public discourse.